I'd only been living in LA a few months when I read about an old lady who made a village out of bottles. Almost five years later (I can't believe I've lived here for this long) Mark and I finally made the trip out to Simi Valley, one of the many places in and around Los Angeles where horse culture abounds.
Neighborhoods like these are populated with horse ranches and long, narrow swaths of land cut up from former ranches. Grandma Prisbrey lived in a trailer on one of these blocks of land and in the 1950's, began to build structures made from bottles and cement.
She was sixty years old when she started, and was the town crazy woman. When I first walk into Bottle Village, I think of my cousin Linda, a schizophrenic who has been in and out of mental institutions all her adult life. When I was 22, I moved out of my parent's house- directly across the street- into a walk-in apartment that used to belong to Linda. There were fingerpaintings on the walls and mosaics in the bathroom made from smashed glass. I remember walking around that apartment and imagining that Linda must have thought she was a great artist. I had all kinds of romantic notions of insanity then, and it just made me sad to see all the evidence of this woman's delusions. She was not a great artist; She was a deeply disturbed person. I thought a lot about the distinction between art and messy insanity. I thought about that walking into Grandma Prisbrey's Bottle Village too.
My first thought, though, is "This woman was not crazy." A few minutes later, I hear a guide telling someone, "Everyone thought Grandma Prisbrey was crazy." The guide explains that this was before recycling was cool, although I don't think that has anything to do with it. Almost the entire plot of land is covered in concrete with tiles and pieces of random debris. Grandma Prisbrey loved going to the dumpsters.
It took me awhile to even notice the bottle structures because I was so fascinated by the objects in the concrete. I thought of her finding a tiny monopoly house and pushing it into the concrete floor. This was meticulous dedication. This was a project that was very clearly worked on every day. It was the time she put into it, the thought, the planning and the careful execution, that makes this a real piece of art, as opposed to the delusion of a madwoman.
You have to work through the Bottle Village slowly. I couldn’t even look up. There was too much to take in. Too many places to look. And a lot of guns.
There are a number of ladies, who talk of Grandma Prisbrey as if she were alive and well, that have taken over preservation attempts and banded together to form Preserve Bottle Village. They were giving little tours and I eavesdropped on as many conversations I could.
Grandma Prisbrey married her first husband in North Dakota when she was 15 and he was 52.
They had seven children but she left him and became a waitress and a lounge singer. After a few years she took her kids and headed to California to live with her sister.
When they were young, Grandma Prisbrey’s kids used to play in a nearby river of nuclear waste while their mom worked. It would happen slowly, but they would all eventually get sick. Four of her seven children would die of cancer in the 1960's, and Grandma Prisbrey outlived all but one of her children. The guides suggest that the Bottle Village was a form of therapy for Grandma Prisbrey and all the death around her.
I notice the trailer, see the door is open and I step inside. This is where Grandma Prisbrey lived. It looks untouched. It looks like she will come limping out of the tiny bedroom at any moment. I feel gigantic inside. Grandma Prisbrey started building her Village to house her pencil collection- she had 17,000 different pencils. I didn’t see the pencils, but their were some pens on display in her trailer.
From Grandma Prisbrey's teeny trailer, she could see the entirety of her Bottle Village.
While I was looking at the pens, a little girl and her mom came inside the trailer. The little girl turned to her mom and said, “I don’t want to be in here.”
Mark came out of the bedroom and told the little girl, “There are dolls back there.” The mom asked her daughter if she wanted to go see the dolls and the little girl shook her head no. I looked at Mark, and back into the bedroom, doubtful that the dolls would be anything but creepy. Inside the trailer, it felt more like Cousin Linda. Cousin Linda had a hard life too. Her husband left her for Linda's best friend. That's enough to make anyone lose their mind. Inside the trailer, Grandma Prisbrey felt just a little
Inside Grandma Prisbrey’s bedroom are her seemingly untouched dolls. Did she sleep with them all around her? Did they keep her company? I stared at the dolls for a long time, wishing that the eighty year old woman who had owned them, had arranged them here, was still alive so I could talk to her.
The bottle village from Grandma Prisbrey's bedroom window:
I left the trailer and walked up to the first bottle structure. There were little holes where I could peek inside. I felt like I was happening upon a secret treasure.
Candlesticks, a piano, books, shelves, mirrors, toys caked in dust! A very nice guide asked me if I wanted to go inside. YES, I said.
Outside, I completely lost the “crazy person” vibe I had in the trailer. Outside, among the bottles and cement, there was something beautiful everywhere you looked. And looking around inside the bottle structures felt like an adventure. The light shining through the bottles, the wind blowing around the lace, the colors, the stars-- it was all just a lovely, free, and happy explosion of imagination and creativity.
There is also just something inherently pretty about bottles and light. My college photography teacher made me feel like a lousy amateur after I brought in pictures of bottles when he announced, “I don’t know why first year photo students all take pictures of bottles. There’s really nothing to look at.” Whatever. He’s wrong.
She would alternate the directions of the bottles in her walls. Her second husband helped her make her first bottle house, but then he died.
In the 70’s, Grandma Prisbrey started to get attention from arty scholars and charged 25 cents for tours. At the end of every tour, she would bring her group into the piano house and play for them. Mark came in while I was staring at the piano and he started to play. It still works just fine.
Exterior photos of the bottle houses:
Bottle Village was severely damaged by the 1994 Northridge Earthquake. Preserve Bottle Village, the amazing group of ladies who years before raised funds to buy back the land, applied for, and received 400,000 dollars from FEMA- money set aside specifically for art damage. The mayor of Simi Valley, though, took up a personal vendetta against Bottle Village and made sure they wouldn’t get any of that money- and they didn’t. He thought Bottle Village was just a trash heap, a joke, the workings of a mad woman.
I left feeling the same way I do after the best museum experiences- drained from all the feeling and thinking and imagining. This is the sort of art I love. The kind of art that has never had anything to do with money. The kind of art that doesn’t care what other people think. The kind of art that is made for love, for healing, out of a compulsion, because you can’t stop and you don’t even know how you started or why. The kind of art that isn’t trying to be anything. That’s the art I can relate to, that most people can relate to, because it's art that appeals to the normal every day person, as all art should.
I left thinking that Grandma Prisbrey was a real artist, not a crazy lady, because she didn’t give up, and I left feeling like I shouldn’t give up either.
Mark and I were all smiles as we drove back home through the otherworldly Simi Valley.